South Korea: Hundreds of Thousands of Students Return to School

A senior student is greeted by a teacher, second from right, upon his arrival at the Kyungbock High School in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. South Korean high schools reopened on Wednesday after weeks of postponement due to safety concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo

Roughly 440,000 South Korean students returned to school on Wednesday after coronavirus lockdowns delayed the start of the academic year by over two months, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

With highly competitive college entrance exams scheduled in December to prepare for, the government prioritized high school seniors’ return to school first. They are the first public school students to resume in-person classes in South Korea, and some of the first in Asia, Japan’s Nikkei reported. Younger students in South Korea will follow suit by June 8 as part of a phased reopening of schools.

“We cannot let the 11 years of preparation by our students be in vain due to the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] outbreak,” said Vice Minister of Education Park Baeg-beom.

The university entrance exams have been rescheduled to December 3, two weeks later than usual, to accommodate the late start to the school year, which traditionally begins in early March. Prior to the reopening, the start of South Korea’s academic year had been delayed five times, according to the report.

On Wednesday, students returning to the classroom had their temperatures checked upon entry. Some schools have installed thermal imaging cameras to detect those with a fever. Desks in some schools are equipped with clear plastic partitions, shielding pupils from their neighbors. Students are asked to wear masks and disinfect their desks every day, according to the report.

The careful restart witnessed in educational institutions on Wednesday comes amid a general easing of coronavirus lockdown measures across South Korea which began on May 6. Government officials call the return to normal routines “everyday life quarantine,” according to the report. The relaxed social distancing measures follow an overall consensus by the government that it has successfully contained South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak, which was once one of the worst in the world, second only to outbreak epicenter China.

This sense of a slowdown in the number of new coronavirus cases has been periodically contradicted by outbreaks of new virus clusters throughout the country. Most recently, on May 11, an outbreak of new cases was traced to a nightclub district in Seoul called Itaewon, where one man infected a host of other clubgoers. The incident caused a resurgence in the number of new coronavirus cases across the country, with 187 new infections linked to the Itaewon cluster documented as of Tuesday, the Nikkei reports.

At least one private school teacher who visited Itaewon at the time of the outbreak tested positive for coronavirus. The instructor reportedly infected at least ten of his students, according to the report. Some private schools in South Korea resumed classes earlier than Wednesday’s public school reopening.

So far, at least 41 public school staff, including teachers, have admitted to visiting the Itaewon clubs involved in the outbreak, according to data from South Korea’s Ministry of Education. Some underage students have also admitted to going clubbing in the district around the time of the outbreak, according to the report.

“Concerns over small infection clusters still remain and no one can predict what kind of situation will arise at schools,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Responding to concerns from parents about the recent cluster infections, Yoo said the education ministry had set up a “24-hour emergency situation room” this week. He assured parents of students that any schools reporting new coronavirus cases through the hotline will be immediately closed.

In the city of Incheon, bordering Seoul, 66 schools were forced to delay the restart of classes by one day after two students tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday. Hours after reopening, 66 schools told their students to go home and come back the next day while authorities clarified the situation, the Incheon Metropolitan City Office of Education said Wednesday.

At press time on Wednesday, South Korea had recorded 11,110 infections and 263 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus.

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